The counter-terrorism strategy of President Barack Obama will be different from that followed by his predecessor George Bush. The initial emphasis will be on removing the distortions which had crept into the strategy under Bush in the hope that this would create some goodwill for the US in the Islamic world and using the goodwill thus hopefully generated for enlisting the support of the Muslims in the campaign against Al Qaeda.
2. These distortions were in the form of ethically questionable deviations from the traditional US counter-terrorism practices. Examples of such deviations: Treating the terrorist suspects as prisoners of war and keeping them in an army-controlled detention centre in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and subjecting them to trial by a military tribunal instead of by normal courts; renditions, which are nothing but avoiding the due process of the law by taking the suspects for interrogation to co-operating third countries over which the US judiciary will not have any jurisdiction; and tolerance of practices bordering on torture during the interrogation.
3. By issuing an order on the very first day in office suspending the trial before the military tribunal for 120 days, Obama has made clear his determination to do away with these deviations and make US counter-terrorism practices once again acceptable to the civil society as a whole—- in the US itself as well as in the rest of the world.
4. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Vice-President, and some professionals of the US intelligence community had convinced Bush that without such deviations it would be difficult to prevail over a dreaded terrorist organisation such as Al Qaeda. Obama, who does not buy such arguments, expects that there would be opposition from these professionals to his attempts to do away with these deviations. That is why he has chosen for the post of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Leon Panetta , who is not an intelligence professional, but who is believed to
agree with Obama that such deviations have done more harm than good to the fight against Al Qaeda and hence need to be abolished. A professional as the head of the CIA might have dragged his feet in implementing the ideas of Obama. In some instances in the past too, when there were allegations of unethical practices by the CIA, US Presidents had brought outsiders to head it to put an end to such practices.
5. Implementing Obama’s ideas with regard to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre is not going to be easy. Only a small number of the nearly 300 detenus there have specific cases going against them. There should be no problem in transferring their cases to normal courts and shifting them to jails in the US. But, the majority of the inmates of the detention centre are preventive detenus, who are suspected to be associated with Al Qaeda, but against whom there is not sufficient evidence for prosecution. What to do with them since it may not be possible to transfer them to jails in the US? If they are handed over to the countries to which they belong and if those countries release them, they might once again join Al Qaeda with renewed anger against the US for keeping them in the detention centre. Some of the detenus—-such as the around 15 Uighurs—- are from countries such as China, which might execute them. Winding up the detention centre without adding to the strength of Al Qaeda and without creating new groups of anger against the US is going to be a tricky task.
6. Will the abolition of such practices help Obama in winning the support of the Muslims for the campaign against Al Qaeda? Doubtful. The anger of the Muslims against the US is not only due to such practices, but also due to the indiscriminate use of air strikes in counter-terrorism operations in Iraq as well as in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. These air strikes have allegedly been causing a large number of civilian casualties. In the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, the Bush Administration was constrained to increase the number of air strikes by unmanned Predator aircraft of the CIA on suspected Al Qaeda hide-outs because of the unwillingness or inability or both of the Pakistan Army to act on the ground against these hide-outs.
7. Under the Bush Administration, the number of such air strikes increased dramatically from 10 in 2006 and 2007 combined to over 30 in 2008. Only eight of these strikes were successful in killing Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives. Over 22 strikes proved to have been based on incorrect intelligence and resulted in many civilian casualties. The accuracy rate of the US intelligence is not more than one-third of the reports disseminated.
8. Obama, who was critical of the deviations in the treatment of detained terrorist suspects, was not critical of the use of air strikes. In fact, he has promised a more robust and proactive campaign against Al Qaeda than was, according to him, followed under Bush in order to wipe out the surviving leaders of Al Qaeda operating from sanctuaries in the Pakistani territory. Rules of engagement authorizing air and ground strikes against Al Qada hide-outs in the Pakistani territory are favoured not only by the CIA, but also by the US Armed Forces. Thus, Obama cannot but continue the policy of stepped-up air strikes followed by Bush. His ability to do so without adding to the civilian casualties will depend on an improvement in the quality of the intelligence flow. Will the posting of an outsider and a non-professional as the chief of the CIA help in improving the quality of intelligence? If it does not, the goodwill which Obama might earn by abolishing the deviations might be wiped out by the anger over continuing civilian casualties due to inaccurate intelligence.
9. Obama’s objective is to delink Iraq from the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, divert more forces to Afghanistan and concentrate on the fight against them. His ability to divert forces from Iraq to Afghanistan would depend on the present low level of activity by Al Qaeda in Iraq continuing, thereby enabling the US to thin out its presence in Iraq. The low level of activity of Al Qaeda in Iraq is partly due to the parting of the ways between it and the secular Iraqi resistance fighters and the crushing of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia by the Saudi authorities. Wahabised Saudis constituted a large component of Al Qaeda in Iraq. A decrease in the flow of Saudis has contributed to the weakening of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
10. Will Al Qaeda consider it to be in the interest of the global jihad being waged by it to let the US shift many of its troops to Afghanistan for crushing the Taliban or will it try to step up its activities in the Sunni areas of Iraq in order to frustrate the plans of Obama to shift troops to Afghanistan? To be able to do so, it will need a fresh flow of Arab volunteers. The widespread anger in the Arab world over the Israeli military strikes in Gaza, the perceived US support for Israel in the UN Security Council and the alleged silence of Obama on the issue could help Al Qaeda in its recruitment of new volunteers for keeping the fighting going in Iraq. If it happens, Obama may not be able to delink Iraq from the ongoing war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
11. Al Qaeda and its Arab supporters do not view Obama as a man of change. They see him as no different from Bush and other American leaders so far as support for Israel is concerned. They do not expect any dramatic change in the US attitude towards Israel under him. If they have to hurt Israel, they have to hurt the US. So they think and so they will try to do.
12. How successful will Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy will be will depend not only on how Obama views the war against Al Qaeda. It will also depend on how Al Qaeda views its jihad against the US. Despite the weakening of its position in Iraq and despite its inability to organize any major terrorist strike outside Pakistan and Algeria since the London and Bali blasts of 2005, Al Qaeda does not think it is losing its global jihad against the US and Israel.
13. It may not have had any spectacular gain on the ground since 2005, but it has convinced itself that the economic difficulties faced by the US are only partly due to the mismanagement of the economy by the Bush Administration. In its view—-as seen from its recent messages—- the global jihad as waged under its leadership has also contributed to the economic difficulties of the US by forcing it to spend more and more on the war against it. It thinks it is in the interest of the global jihad to force the US to spend more and more thereby aggravating its economic difficulties. For that, the US will have to be kept preoccupied in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. It has been trying to take advantage of the Arab anger over the Israeli military strikes in Gaza to step up its recruitment and increase its activities in Iraq.
14. The weakest point of the still-evolving counter-terrorism strategy of Obama—- as it was with the strategy of Bush—- is its inability to think of a coherent and compelling response to Pakistan’s complicity, if not collusion, with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the various other pro-Al Qaeda jihadi terrorist groups operating from Pakistani territory. The present Government of President Asif Ali Zirdari—like its predecessor Government of Pervez Musharraf— is skillfully exploiting the US fears of a jihadi deluge without Pakistan’s co-operation for following a policy of seeming co-operation with the US and covert complicity with the terrorists. Like Bush, Obama too seems reluctant to confront Pakistan with punitive action if it fails to co-operate. Unless and until Pakistan knows that it will suffer if it does not change its present devious policy, things are not going to change. (22-1-09)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.